Tuesday, January 24, 2006

"An Impossibility" William Robertson Smith VII

Principal Rainy of Edinburgh, the uncrowned archbishop of the Free Church was the one man Robertson Smith could not afford to antagonise. But in 1878, in a series of Lectures on The Bible and Criticism at the English Presbyterian College, Rainy let it be known that his support could not be relied upon. He let it be known that, if Robertson Smith and his friends thought that the mere name of 'Critic' confered upon its bearer an authority of almost Papal quality, Robert Rainy did not.

The words of critics, Rainy warned his audience, were to be weighed with caution. "It is very safe to wait," he told them; but it is very dangerous "to open our mouths very wide for the purpose of swallowing critical theories that happen to have been plausibly proposed and to be floating about in the air" (P. 87). Was Rainy implying that he thought Robertson Smith and his friends had very wide mouths indeed, and very uncritical appetites. "It seems not to ask too much to ask that such an opinion [as puts a strain on the faith of ordinary Christians] shall be propounded, not dogmatically, but problematically," Rainy pleaded (P. 185). To counter the objection that criticism had to be free and unfettered, Rainy replied:
"I do not think that the interests of truth will be prejudiced, nor yet the candour and frankness of our own minds, by recognising a certain responsibility towards that great mass of Christian view and feeling, which certainly is not all equally enlightened, but still, has in it elements of truth and goodness, not so adequately represented in any individual mind, however pious or however able." (P. 186)
The danger was in fact that critics, isolated from the general mass of believers, would suffer by this isolation. They would benefit enormously from taking into account the common folk, whom Rainy had dealt with in his years in the pastorate: "I think criticism, even as carried on by believing men, needs an influence arising from the point of view of those who represent simply the interests of the common faith." (P. 28). That this is a direct reference to Robertson Smith is suggested by a letter that Rainy had written earlier to Dr. Laidlaw, a member of the Aberdeen Free Presbytery, concerning the Robertson Smith case:

"The root of the whole mischief appears to me to be an absence of regard for the conditions under which believing men who have not much scholarship, including ministers, maintain their faith in the Word of God... the disregard of this appears to me... to amount to contempt. Where this is so, scholarship wants a steadying influence. Personal faith is not enough as a steadying influence." (Quoted in P. Carnegie Simpson, The Life of Principal Rainy, [London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1909, 2 Volumes] Vol. i. P. 329).

Rainy, as was his wont, did not commit himself to either side in the Robertson Smith case. If he stated his belief in the unity of Isaiah, he also criticized the harsh and censorious spirit in which many conservatives spoke of Biblical Criticism. But Rainy made it quite clear that he was not prepared to shelter Robertson Smith if he made himself troublesome.

And Robertson Smith DID make himself troublesome, as we shall see next time.



Blogger steve said...

"And why isn't Free St. George's on the list?"

Uh-oh! Awkward question time!

Answer: had I included you in my parody of the Turkoman's questionnaire, it would have been like hanging a Raphael in a gallery of Andy Warhols!

8:35 pm  

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